A Tale of Two Rom-Coms


Last Sunday I watched two very different Romantic Comedies. One was a TV movie that I’d recorded from Saturday night, the other a film I went to see at the cinema, a rare event in itself. I got to thinking that I could write up my thoughts as a kind of compare-and-contrast.

Which I will do but before diving straight into that, perhaps I should say, because I never really have yet, that I am a big fan of the romantic comedy as a film genre. It’s pure wish-fulfillment fantasy – which surely all the best movies are – but these particular types of fantasy, these specific wishes – to find someone, fall in love and live happily ever after (probably with an amusing but cute small dog) – are the ones that tap into some of my deeper desires.

I’ve always liked rom-coms and as a consequence have a fair share of really mediocre ones, as well as a few very good ones, on video and DVD. Rom-coms are hard to do well. You need two (at least two) likeable and fanciable actors. You need to be funny without losing the characters and romantic without descending in saccharine sentiment. Oh, and you can do all that and still find your leads lack that mysterious quality called chemistry.

Some of my favourites are

– When Harry met Sally
– The Philadelphia Story
– Clueless
– Say Anything
– Jerry MacGuire

This a becoming a bigger topic than I intended – probably a sign I should blog about this separately. Or at least let it get revealed as I write about other stuff.

Suffice to say I’m a rom-com fan and there was a time when a good saturday night in involved a bottle of wine, some chocolate and a soppy teen rom-com. A combination which fed my appetites and desires, both physical and emotional.

So anyway, back to the 2 movies from Sunday. The second of the two, the night out at the pictures one, was

A Lot like Love

I have avoided going out to the pictures for quite a while. Time was when it was my favourite escape. Go out, on my own, late at night and catch a late showing of whatever I fancied. And since I was on my own it didn’t matter if I was as self-indulgent as I cared to be in my choice of movie. But I’ve done that a lot less in the last few years – relative affluence – the ability to afford to buy/rent DVDs or watch them on TV made it easier to stay in. I live alone so I’m no longer escaping the company of others. Also in the last year especially my tolerance for the irritations of cinema-going – basically those who talk or keep their mobiles on – are a lot lower (or maybe people generally are worse in this respect I’m not sure).

But anyway, Sunday I was feeling a need to get out of the house so I left determining to watch whatever was the next film showing at the local multiplex. I expected it to either be Star Wars III or Batman Begins. Actually it was Batman Begins – but it was a wait of over an hour. So with that kind of wait I decided to go for A Lot like Love – a rom-com I’d heard good, but not amazing things about.

If I have avoided going out to the cinema I’ve also started to avoid rom-coms out of sheer desperation at how many mediocre ones I’ve seen – I simply don’t want to be disappointed again. My favourite ones I’ve seen in the last year or two – Two Weeks Notice, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – have been good but not great. Part of this must be the age effect – the older you get, the more you’ve seen, the better a film has to be to stand out – but a large part too is, as I said above, that making good rom-coms, is hard – the really good ones are rare.

A Lot like Love is a a lot like When Harry met Sally with a little bit of Four Weddings and a Funeral thrown in. It’s the story of Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet getting together over a period of 7 years. To begin with it felt very formulaic – he’s a fairly straight-laced kinda guy, she’s a wild’n’crazy rock chick (their first encounter she pushes him into the loo for a bit of mile high action). But thankfully, as the years go by, that gets dropped and we simply have two people whose paths cross repeatedly. Like WHMS they’re usually involved with other people and so the timing is always off. Eventually of course they do end up together (it’s a rom-com remember – wishes to be fulfilled).

There were some things I really liked about this movie. It wasn’t completely formulaic. It wasn’t completely funny either and the set pieces felt a little forced (falling asleep naked in a national park for e.g.). Also Peet and Kutcher had some chemistry but it wasn’t exactly sparkling between them. They laughed a lot, giggled at each, smug smiles like they both thought they had the upper hand on the other. It felt a bit odd – like they knew they were in a movie. Odd and slightly off-putting.

There was however a theme of life not working out exactly as we plan, which was done with a fairly light hand. There’s a moment where Kutcher’s character has to decide between trying to make a go of it with Peet (at a stage where he’s really not sure how much is there between them) and his burgeoning career as a dot-com entrepreneur. He manages to convey a sense of confusion about what to do that’s genuinely affecting.

For an American movie, especially for an Ashton Kutcher movie, the humour is fairly subtle (naked nature expeditions notwithstanding). It’s interesting that the main character’s brother is deaf and we have some mis-translation between sign-language and English humour. A nod perhaps to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In the end though the film doesn’t have that many memorable scenes and leaves the impression, like so many rom-coms, of being an amiable waste of time.

The Girl in the Cafe

This was the other film I saw last Sunday. It was actually written by Richard Curtis, he of the multiple matrimonies movie. Now here’s where I should own up to some slight misrepresentation. I’ve called this the tale of two rom-coms but actually this isn’t quite. It’s certainly in the style of one but that’s actually just the excuse, the delivery mechanism for a Very Important Message.

See I didn’t know this at the time but The Girl in the Cafe is actually about Making Poverty History. It’s as much a publicity stunt, for that admittedly noble cause, as Live8.

And I have to say it’s very effective. Very affective too.

Curtis uses all his skill at this sort of thing to produce something moving that’s not overly-sentimental – though some have criticised it for being overly simplistic.

Lawrence, a shy unassuming, but influential aide to the Chancellor of the Exchequor meets a girl in a cafe. Thus begins a gentle and tender romance, the backdrop of which is the G8 conference. Lawrence is played by Bill Nighy, who like that other Curtis leading man, Hugh Grant – effortlessly belies his real charm to portray a rather pathetic, though winning soul. A man who wanted to join the Rolling Stones in his youth but has ended up in a rather soul-destroying – if superficially high-powered – office job. Soul-destroying in part because he actually cares about the area of Third World Development but is constantly forced to compromise to get anything done.

The theme of this film is in part, what would we do if we were the men we wanted to be when we were young? It’s the same as the one in A Lot like Love but from the perspective of middle-age. I found it particularly affective because although I’m not quite that old, I do know that feeling of life not quite turning out as you planned, and realising you’re not quite the person you’d hoped you’d be.

That’s where Curtis is very clever. He uses the form and formulas of rom-com to get his message across. He does the gentle comedy, the engaging, if slightly implausible characters, the winning way in which we come to want them to find their wishes fulfilled in each other.

But they don’t.

Or at least it’s left open with the odds not looking good. What TGitC gives you instead is a different kind of resolution. Rom-coms normally use their tricks to make implausible romantic wishes seem plausible. Let’s face it the nerdy guy doesn’t usually end up with the beautiful girl who recognises his slightly hidden good heart. And the shy retiring guy is shy for a reason. Well-done rom-coms allow us to look past the reasons why these people either wouldn’t get together in the first place or why they might not last.

Curtis actually has Kelly MacDonald – the ‘girl’ – say that “she can’t honestly see a future for [her and Nighy]”. I mean that’s bursting the exact bubble you’re supposed to be blowing. That’s destroying the illusion that you want to create.

Except that’s not the illusion Curtis wants to create. The fantasy he wants to make plausible, the wishes he wants to fulfill are the ones about Feeding the World and Making Poverty History. So that when he has Nighy talk about how it’s better to compromise on the lesser domestic stuff and really go for the life-and-death poverty issues – he’s mirroring that by compromising the romantic relationship in order to make the point about Stuff that Matters.

It’s effective. Nighy and MacDonald both give brilliant, subtle performances. It’s implausible that someone as powerful as Nighy is not have more ability with people. It’s implausible that someone with MacDonald’s inexperience and background be so articulate in the face of world leaders. And yet we never doubt them. The tone of the film is perfectly judged. It’s bitter-sweet because we’d never accept an out and out happy-ever-after when we’re talking of millions dying. And yet it is amusing, warm and above all hopeful.

Because in the end the wish that we want fulfilled most of all is that we can make a difference.

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About shuggie

My name is Shuggie, Paul or LatePaul depending on where you know me from. I work in computers (databases) and occasionally write about softw
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